Ashok Amritraj is perhaps the only Indian who’s hit the big time in Hollywood. Check this out:
* In the fall of 2005 his company, Hyde Park Entertainment, and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks will release a family film titled Dreamer.
* In 2004 he bankrolled Bringing Down the House with Disney and Walking Tall with MGM respectively. Both movies were certified box office hits.
* He has served on the panel of the Academy of Motion Pictures in Hollywood.
* When Hyde Park Entertainment announces a film today, it is pre-sold in eight countries—Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the U.K., Scandinavia, and Australia—at pre-determined prices, “sight unseen.”
Filmfare caught up with Ashok Amritraj to talk to him about crossover films, the impact of Hindi actors and directors in Hollywood, and his own success. Excerpts from the interview:
How would you describe your 25-year stint in Hollywood?
Till 1991 I was an outsider. It was only after my film Double Impact with Jean Claude Van Damme became a hit that I actually made my mark in Hollywood.
For the first 10 years I belonged to the 99 percent of Bollywood, which is on the outside and looking in. Now I belong to the 1 percent which is on the inside, looking out.
How exactly would you describe your current position there?
Well, I’ve been on a roll for the last 10 years. Besides producing two very successful films, Bringing Down The House and Walking Tall, I have served on the panel of the Academy of Motion Pictures and this year the Academy has also nominated me as their Ambassador for the restoration of the Satyajit Ray movies. As everyone knows, 2004 is the 50th year of Pather Panchali and we intend to have a series of Ray events around the world.
I also have a project with Steve Martin ready. And I’m talking to Richard Gere about a film too.
Way back you worked with Aishwarya Rai in the desi flick Jeans. She is now looking to make her mark in Hollywood. How good are her chances of making it in Hollywood?
I hear Aishwarya has been working towards making a base in Hollywood for the last couple of years. But I think it’s unfair for people to think that she can walk into Hollywood and become Nicole Kidman. It ain’t going to happen. What is important now, is for the Indian film industry to encourage her and support her if she’s trying to make it in the West. She is working hard and that’s half the battle.
Anyway, these things take time. Even here, in Mumbai, people hang around for so long before they actually make it. It’s the same in Hollywood. You have to pay your dues. Part of it is the discipline and the way you market yourself. Aishwarya is trying to do it. I’m told there are others trying to do it, too.
Is there any other Indian film personality whose Hollywood chances look bright?
No one has broken through. There are no Indian racehorses that have been taken out of the gate. I think it will take at least a couple of years for that to happen. I think that’s okay because five to seven years ago, no one in India even spoke of crossover films or going to Hollywood.
In your opinion has any Indian movie actually crossed over?
No. A business of $25 to $30 million is roughly the benchmark to consider that a film has crossed over and attracted a white or Caucasian audience. That has not happened so far.
Aren’t Mira Nair and Shekhar Kapur recognized in Hollywood?
Mira is wonderful with the small movies that she makes. She is best known for Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding. But her Vanity Fair was a no-no. Shekhar made Elizabeth, which was a U.K. collaboration. But Four Feathers was no good. In my opinion we haven’t had a true Indian crossover film. Which is rather unfortunate.
China had Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Italy had Life Is Beautiful, and France had Amelie, all of which were major in Hollywood. But India has nothing in this league so far.
Another interesting phenomenon in Hollywood is that we’re looking to remake certain Asian films. But the films are primarily Korean, Japanese, and from Hong Kong; nothing from India. I don’t think originality is the strong point of Indian cinema, anyway.
Is there no director of Indian origin who’s renowned in Hollywood?
Manoj Night Shyamalan is the only director with Indian roots who I’d say could call the shots in Hollywood. Manoj has had four successful movies (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) and he is perhaps the only Indian who can approach a studio if he wants to make a movie. Others have to wait for their phone to ring.
I hear Manoj is looking to film his next project, The Life of Pi, in India. So that will definitely offer Indian actors quite a few opportunities.
You yourself were talking about making a movie with an Indian girl and an American hero, weren’t you?
Yes, I was here in March last year to look for an Indian girl to play the lead in my movie, a love story between an Indian girl and an American guy. Karan Johar helped me get acquainted with some of the top actresses here. It is a star-making role for a girl. But I don’t seem to be able to get an American director interested in such a project. I keep getting the classic shake of the head. If I put Jennifer Lopez instead of the Indian girl perhaps we’d get talking.
The British directors understand India better, but your average American is not in the least bit curious about India. For most of them India, Pakistan, and the Middle East are one. They are only curious about this part of the world because of the war. And you have to actually point out India and Pakistan on the map for them.
It’s almost a year since your last trip. You haven’t found your Indian girl yet?
Honestly, I haven’t looked very hard. It is just that I have my hands full with my Hollywood projects and haven’t been able to take myself away from those. You’ve got to just go along with the flow. You know what the Bible says about each one having seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. I’ve had my seven years of famine.
So it’s currently your seven years of plenty?
You could say that.
One thing my years of famine in have taught me is that in showbiz you’ve got to respect the business when you are at the top. So many people disrespect the business when they are at the top, that when they take the fall, it is really steep. I’ve known so many actors in the last 20 years who have not handled their success well. Jean Claude Van Damme is a classic example. I paid Van Damme $450,000 for Double Impact. He got paid $9 million for his very next movie. And two movies later, he was reportedly on drugs. Which is a pity because Van Damme was at such a perfect time in history for an action hero. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were getting older; Steven Seagal was kinda weird. So Van Damme would’ve gone places. I even called him several times to talk to him about all this but to no avail.
So there you are, like I said earlier, you’ve got to treat the business well. Only then will it treat you well too.
What, according to you, is your formula for success in Hollywood?
Success is normally attributed to working hard and destiny. But the life experience that one brings along also matters. I grew up in India. I traveled the world. And I spent my time learning the craft in Hollywood. Naturally, my experience is so much larger than that of the guy who grew up in Burbank and goes to work in Beverly Hills.